Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Tyranny of the Urgent ... 5% for #2!

Over my career I have often been faced with situations where there was just too much on the plate at any one time. This reality of operating at or over personal capacity is pervasive in today’s economic reality when we all feel the need to maximize our professional impact in order to improve often lackluster business trends. When one combines this economic pressure with full personal lives including significant spouse/partner relationships, active growing children, aging and possibly ailing parents, etc., the “over capacity” reality is unfortunately common and pervasive.

While I often dream of a simpler, less frenetic lifestyle, I have come to terms with the reality that for the next number of years, my life will probably become more busy/full/hectic, not less. With that sobering assumption in mind, I wanted to share a simple model that I have found helpful in attempting to prioritize a “over capacity“life.

The chart above is a simple tool that I have often used to sort/prioritize the many professional and personal priorities that I try to juggle every day. The X-axis captures the element of” urgency”, ranging from high to low, the Y-axis captures the element of ‘importance”, again ranging from high to low. Use this graph to plot the many priorities that you are facing and push yourself to array your priorities broadly across the chart…not every priority is urgent and important!

Once you have taken a stab at the chart, pause for a moment (“PBR” once again) and take a look at the quadrants. Priorities in quadrants 1 and 4 should be pretty straight forward. Quadrant 1 items should get first priority on the daily to do list. They should be resourced well and you should be keeping an eye on them being executed well. Additionally, it is important that the quadrant 1 items are being accomplished and “checked” off the list. Lingering quadrant 1 priorities are dangerous, possibly leading to missing key deadlines.

Quadrant 4 should be equally straightforward. Push yourself to try to “prune” the quadrant 4 list! If a priority is neither urgent nor important, does it have to stay on the list? There are certainly instances where priorities that start in quadrant 4 “migrate over time into quadrant 1 so I am not suggesting that you eliminate all of these priorities. I am encouraging you to take a moment for some critical self assessment and try to eliminate as many of quadrant 4 initiatives as possible.

The real complexity of this model candidly does not lie in these previous two quadrants. The challenge that I have faced is how to handle quadrants 2 and 3. In the “over capacity” reality that I mentioned above, it is natural/common/typical to focus on the most urgent items first. At times it can feel that every day’s (every week’s/every months?) to-do lists are solely trying to handle quadrants 1 & 3. This dynamic has been coined “the tyranny of the urgent.” My experience has lead me to believe that this dynamic, “the tyranny of the urgent”, is a dangerous habit to get into. I believe this orientation is not only bad for business; it can be bad for your team and ultimately bad for yourself.

Bad for business: The danger of forgetting about priorities in quadrant 2 is that while you’re busily handling the pressing needs of the moment, important initiatives for the business are being neglected. We need to remember that the time marches on in business and before you know it will be next month, next quarter, next year, etc. If we don’t focus development time on items that WILL be important and urgent in the coming months, quarters.

Bad for your team: One of the items most often forgotten in this “tyranny of the urgent” world is taking time to connect and coach with your tem. We all need to remember that we are not the only ones who are operating in “over capacity” mode. Mt experience is that our team members are often in the same or worse situation. Finding the time to reach out and check in with your team NOT about some pressing item, but to see how they are doing and how we as leaders can help is an important activity that is rarely urgent.

Bad for self: Finally, my experience has lead me to realize that quadrants #1 and #3 rarely contain work on one’s own skills. Building skills is a vital and very important priority in all of our careers and it is too easy to always de-prioritize it because it is rarely urgent. Take a moment and read the essay titled “Execute, Excel, and Build Skills”. It is our individual responsibilities to continually build our skills, whether we are starting our careers or like me, 25+ years into a career that is still growing and challenging.

Finally, I want to suggest an easy to remember idea, “5% for #2!” If we can take just 5% of our time, ½ and hour a day or 2-3 hours per week, and force e ourselves to work on quadrant #2, I believe we can make real progress on this issue of the “tyranny of the urgent.” While I dream of a time when I can be engulfed by the “tyranny of the important,” taking a first step toward “5% for #2” needs to be the immediate action to possibly make that aspiration a reality!